November 13, 1998 Halifax Herald

Merchant seaman: justice must prevail

Our story's hero, Fred Sapier, was born to Lizzie (Prosper) and Louis Sapier on April 24, 1923. He resided with his parents until his 6th birthday. He was then institutionalized at the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School until he was 15.

After release from the school in 1938, he returned to Pictou Landing Indian Reserve for a short while, then ventured into Halifax, lied about his age, and became a Merchant Mariner. This placed the young teen in the middle of the outbreak of the Second World War.

( Note: Fred has misplaced his records; therefore, the dates and places of the described events may be a little jumbled. However, the intent here is to highlight government cruelty not historical exactness.)

Fred's wartime adventures are those from which inspiring legends evolve. He was on the Vineland in 1939 (actual date, April 20, 1942) when it was torpedoed and sunk by a German sub (U-!54). He holds no rancour towards the sub's crew - he makes complimentary remarks about the kindness of the Captain, who spoke to them afterwards and furnished a compass to assist them in their effort to cross the ocean in a lifeboat. He further recalls that the Captain gave them cigarettes to help calm their nerves during the playing out of the ordeal.

This is how they overcame: After spending six or seven days adrift, with only a bit of fresh water for sustenance, a schooner picked them up and took them to the Grand Turks. Then a passenger liner gave them a lift to the Dutch West Indies. From there, they hitched rides on various ships to New York. Fred then took a train to Halifax, where he was assigned to another ship.

Over the course of the war, Fred served aboard many ships, including one assigned to convoy PQ28, which sailed from Iceland to Murmansk Russia. Only a few of the ships participating in this convoy were torpedoed and sunk. The previous convoy, PQ27, was not so fortunate; as far as Fred can recall, only one ship survived.

During the early 1940s, Sapier landed in England and signed on with the British Merchant Marine. This was made possible by the fact that prior to 1948, there was no such thing as Canadian citizenship. At the time people resident in Canada - except for First Nation's Peoples, who were classified by the government as "Wards of the Crown" - were British Subjects. In Fred's case, the British probably didn't know that Canada treated its First Nations Peoples as second-class citizens, for they treated him as an equal.

During the Normandy invasion, Fred was a crewman aboard the ocean going tug Sophie. Thus, during the Second World War, he and his compatriots worked under conditions which placed their lives in constant peril.

After the war, Fred remained in England for 28 years. In 1968, he moved home to Pictou Landing Reserve. Because he had been so young when he went to live and work among the English, he has acquired a fairly heavy English accent. This has led some of his fellow band members to dub him the "Limey Mi'kmaq."

Today, at 75, Fred and his wife Doris reside year-round on Indian Island (Maligomesh). The Island has no electricity or other modern conveniences, but the couple loves living there.

Fred and his fellow wartime merchant mariners are mostly unsung and neglected Canadian heros. Without them, and the fearlessness they displayed while serving aboard ships which moved cargo and troops across dangerous oceans, the war would have been lost. For this, our country is very grateful, right? Wrong! For instance, for his devotion to duty and country, Fred, who is in failing health, has been awarded a "generous" Civilian War Allowance of $33 per month. Itís barely enough to feed a pet, let alone a human.

Canada's failure to provide adequate benefits to enable its veteran merchant seamen to live comfortably is unforgivable. This meanness finally provoked several of them into going on a hunger strike in late September 1998. The strike ended October 9, when the government promised to introduce legislation which would extend to them regular forces benefits.

Itís hard to comprehend the lack of conscience and compassion Canada has displayed towards its veteran merchant mariners. Why has it taken 53 long years for it to grudgingly agree to look after their welfare? Perhaps the fact that there are only about 2300 left alive plays a large part. Then again, the government's action may be nothing more than a political evasion. But this fact remains: Nothing short of providing these heroic men with justice will help relieve this Nation of its incalculable debt to them!

Canada has many historical things to be ashamed of: its mistreatment of its First Nations Peoples; the mistreatment of its Black, Chinese, Japanese citizens, etc. Its depressing to see added to this long list of despicable deeds the disgraceful way it has treated the men who bravely manned our wartime merchant ships and played a major part in the defeat of the modern world's most dastardly evil, Nazism.

Therefore, if among the governing Liberals there are people with a conscience, the government will see justice prevail for these brave men in a few months - not six months, or years. To further delay is inexcusable and displays a blatant lack of compassion.

Daniel N. Paul


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